Thanksgiving Eve
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Deuteronomy 26:1-2; 11 Sermon
November 26, 2014

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Hymns (printed in bulletin):
We Praise Thee, O God, Our Redeemer, Creator
How Great Thou Art
Now Thank We All Our God
Come Ye Thankful People Come 
For The Beauty Of The Earth
Abide With Me 

TEXT: “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there.  11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is amongst you.”
The text I just read is an interesting one, especially when the Lord lays out a principle of Thanksgiving for the Israelites.  They were to take from the first fruits of the harvest and give it as a type of thank offering to the Lord.  This is what God commanded them to do.  God wanted his share from the first fruits, and not from the left-overs.
When I was in Australia, there was one particular farmer in one of the congregations by the name of Bernie.  He grew garden type crops.  This passage was the principle Bernie used when it came time to give thanks to God.
He reckoned that God had blessed him in so many ways, which is why he decided to follow this Old Testament principle of Thanksgiving.  He had special boxes marked with "Lutheran Church" for this purpose.  Those were the boxes that got filled first.  And the commodity co-op knew what all this meant too.  They would send a check directly to the church; Bernie never saw so much as a dollar of that money.  The Lord knew Bernie's heart; and however the Lord chose to bless that first harvest would translate directly into resources used specifically for the Lord's work.  
So why Thanksgiving in the first place?  For so many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that is centered around a big meal, maybe getting together with family, and watching football on T. V.  But for Bernie, it meant actually sharing the bounty of the Lord for the work of the Lord.  And even though Thanksgiving isn't a national holiday in Australia, Bernie certainly knew how to celebrate it in a God-pleasing way.  Bernie's life was in thanksgiving to God.
If you were to stop just about anybody on the street and ask them what they’re doing for Thanksgiving, they’ll probably be able to tell you; and most of the time it will involve a special meal of some description.  Even the homeless can go to various shelters and enjoy a special Thanksgiving meal.
What are the roots of Thanksgiving?  Why do we celebrate it?  As citizens of the United States of America, we often point back to the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.  The Pilgrims were being persecuted in England for practicing their religion, and so they sought religious freedom on American soil.
You've probably heard me talk about his in the past.  The year was 1620.  When the Pilgrims touched Plymouth Rock in that year and made it to shore, they found a deserted village, which they eventually appropriated for themselves and named it Plymouth Colony. The village had been named Patuxet and was the former home of an Indian tribe who were a branch of the Wampanoags. The majority of these people had died from smallpox in 1618. The village was a ghost town.
The Pilgrims were helped out by Squanto (or Tisquantum), a Wampanoag and a former inhabitant of Patuxet. Squanto spoke English. He had learned this language over a period of several years, following his capture by English traders and sale into slavery in Europe. He had made it back home, a heroic nine-year journey, only to find his people pretty much wiped out.
After teaching the Pilgrims basic survival and agricultural techniques, the Wamponoags and Pilgrims kept peaceful relations for well over fifty years.
Legend has it that the first meal shared between the Indians and the Pilgrims was the first Thanksgiving meal, and is cited as the basic reason why we continue to have these massive feasts on Thanksgiving.  Well that explains the meal anyway.
But Thanksgiving is a national holiday, right?  How did that happen?  Was it something the Pilgrims or the Indians did?  Why do we need a holiday centered around a huge meal?
The year was 1863, and the people of the United Sates were bruised and discouraged because of the War Between the States, or the Civil War as it is commonly known.  On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made what is known as the Thanksgiving proclamation.  Here are a few of his words:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God….No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…”
So now we have the date; the last Thursday of November each year has been the holiday of national Thanksgiving in the United States ever since 1863.  By the way, Canada also has a day of national Thanksgiving, which they celebrate on the second Monday in October.  It's the same idea as the American Thanksgiving, only a bit earlier.  It's probably due to an earlier harvest in Canada.
Getting back to the story now, all the elements are in place; we have the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, the Indians, and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation.  It all seems so neat and tidy; we couldn’t be forgetting anything, are we?
Indeed we are, because the celebration of Thanksgiving started way before the Pilgrims were even born, almost 400 years ago, but historians place it as far back as the early centuries of Christianity.  Thanksgiving, also called Harvest Thanksgiving has been an official, and often overlooked celebration in the church for a long, long time.  And before Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, it was pretty much up to the church to make sure it was celebrated.
If we want to be really technical about it, we could say that the real first Thanksgiving is described in our text for this evening, from Deuteronomy 26.  What we read here, is a sermon delivered by Moses to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan.
As we read this account, we see that it gives the details of the celebration of the harvest and the giving of its first fruits as a thanksgiving offering to God for delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  In ancient Israel, the festival was celebrated in the spring on the fiftieth day following the cutting of the first sheaf of grain.
Thanksgiving celebrations have a much wider connotation.  Thank offerings of many kinds had been known in Israel and in other cultures from earliest times. Frequently a festive meal was associated with the sacrificial offering.  One can easily see why the English practice of celebrating harvest thanksgiving services and the later North American custom of marking a special Thanksgiving Day have ancient sacred roots.
But Thanksgiving, just like so many other things has become secularized.  For example, celebrating the joy of the birth of the Christ Child has become almost unrecognizable with all of the materialism and the merchandising and the greed.  Christians have to work extra hard to put the meaning of Christmas back where it belongs.
In a similar sense, celebrating the joy of Christ’s resurrection from the dead has become overshadowed by Cadbury chocolate eggs, and marshmallow peeps, and Easter baskets.
As we consider these celebrations in the Church, there is something we tend to overlook.  Our celebration of Christmas in the church is a good thing, and it is very proper that we mark this important day.  And in a similar sense, we properly celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead on Easter, which we also continue to proclaim throughout the entire Church year.  It is good that we do this.
But do you know what?  There is no command anywhere in the Bible that we celebrate these holidays.  Nowhere does it say that we have to sing Christmas carols, or have Easter festival services, or Advent services, or Lenten services or any of that.  We do these things because of what these events mean to us, and we praise God for them.
Thanksgiving is the only church festival that has a command attached to it.  Thanksgiving is something that God wants us to do.  And I can’t even begin to count the times in the Bible that we are told to do this!  We even have the example of early Thanksgiving celebrations amongst the Israelites in the Old Testament!
If we go to the Psalms, we have so many exhortations to give thanks.  We can recite the words of Psalm 118, 1 so easily from memory:  “O give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.”  
And then we have the example of Jesus giving thanks.  He gave thanks when he broke the bread and fed the five thousand.  He gave thanks when he celebrated the last supper with his disciples.  Even Jesus was always giving thanks!
The Apostle Paul was another person who was full of thanksgiving.  Even when he was being persecuted, he still found the opportunity to give thanks, even under those adverse conditions.
So why give thanks?  As human beings, we tend to take things for granted far too much.  When a baby cries in hunger, he or she expects to be fed.  There are no thank-you’s for the spoons of strained carrots shoveled into their mouth, it’s just something they expect and take for granted.
In so many ways, we are like that baby.  We flip a switch, and we expect a light to come on.  We turn a key and expect our car to start.  We go to the supermarket and expect to find food on the shelves.  We turn on the tap and expect water to come out.  We open our mouths, and expect there to be air to breathe.  We take so much for granted.
For these things, and so many other things, we are to be thankful to God for providing them.  The things God provides maybe aren’t exactly what we want, but he still provides for us just the same.
Jesus is the reason for the season—that has been a popular phrase at Christmas time, but it is also true for other times too.  It is true at Easter, and it is especially true at Thanksgiving.
We not only are to be thankful for our material blessings, but our spiritual ones as well.  In his Thanksgiving proclamation, Abraham Lincoln said, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Our heavenly Father has every right to be upset with our shallow brand of thankfulness.  He continually gives out of love for us, and we treat him like he owes it to us.  He would have every right to cut us off, and let us go.
But he doesn’t.  He has, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “nevertheless remembered mercy.”  This is shown in Jesus our Lord.  In spite of our sins, God deals with us according to his great love.  Not only does he provide for us physically, but spiritually as well.  
That’s why Jesus came to this earth.  He came so that through faith in him, we would know the reward of heaven.  Heaven is sometimes described as “the great feast.”  It is happiness and joy beyond any comparison.
God continually deals with us in love.  He loves both our bodies and our souls.  Even though we sin often and continually take God for granted, Jesus has brought this love to us on a very personal level.  We are redeemed and saved by grace through faith in him.  And for that, we must be eternally grateful.
Thanksgiving has sometimes gotten pushed into the background.  Merchants clear out the Halloween decorations and make way for Christmas.  It can be difficult to even find Thanksgiving decorations in the stores amongst the marked down Halloween candy and the new Christmas displays.  Thanksgiving has become unimportant in society, except to have a day off work and eat a big meal.
How do we regard Thanksgiving?  Is it a cause for celebration, or just a nuisance?  If we push the real meaning of Thanksgiving aside, and find ourselves saying things like “I’m too busy fixing dinner to go to church on Thanksgiving,” it would be like saying “I’m too busy wrapping Christmas presents to go to church,” or “I’m too busy filling Easter baskets to go to church.”
I remember one instance in particular with Bernie and his farm.  He had planted a whole bunch of Papaya trees, and they did well.  As usual, the first pick of the trees went to the church.  But it wasn't long after that time that the trees got some sort of blight, and they all died.  There wasn't any second picking to be had.  But Bernie, even though he was dismayed and discouraged, never stopped giving thanks to God.  He continued to use the Old Testament principle we have in our text for this evening.
There is a command when it comes to Thanksgiving, even when it isn’t very convenient.  Psalm 119 verse 62 says, “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.”  It can’t be very convenient to get up out of bed just to give thanks, but David did it.
In a similar sense, Jesus after he healed ten lepers was discouraged because only one bothered to take the time to come back and give thanks.  Were the others thankful?  They certainly would have been; but for them to come back and give thanks was inconvenient.
This Thanksgiving, let us take the time to give thanks to God, as it says in our liturgy:  “It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
God most certainly established the first Thanksgiving.  May we continue to keep its celebration amongst us always.